Last week I asked my longtime colleague, GV advisor Richard Scheller, for his perspective on the latest COVID-19 vaccine news. Richard has dedicated his life to developing new medicines, and as the leader of multiple R&D organizations, he pioneered oncology drugs that have helped millions of people. I was curious to get Richard's take on the development of the new COVID-19 vaccines, how quickly they might diffuse the pandemic, and what impact their accelerated development will have on future drug discovery and approval.
When he first read that both Moderna and Pfizer were using messenger RNA (mRNA) to develop their COVID-19 vaccines, Richard had doubts: "We've never made a vaccine this way before, is this going to work?" he asked himself. "While the non-human primate data looked really promising, and infectious disease is one of the areas where non-human primate data translates into humans more effectively than elsewhere, I was skeptical."
When the results came in, he was astonished. "We haven't seen the details of the data yet; however, I think we've seen enough to say it's absolutely remarkable. These were event-driven trials, totally independent activities, and the data produced remarkably similar results: 94 or 95 percent prevention of disease. Absolutely terrific. I would be surprised if by the summer we weren't getting back towards close to normal."
Questions remain about how long vaccine protection will last, the role of antibodies in blunting the disease for those early stage infections, and the involvement of T cells versus B cells. Although we still have a lot to learn, the reported efficacy of these drugs is particularly encouraging. As he notes, "I don't think anybody would have predicted 95%. I'm certainly going to line up to be one the first when my turn comes to get the vaccine."
Richard is optimistic that this is just the beginning for a new era of mRNA vaccines, saying "It's proven itself as a terrific way of expressing whatever protein you would like very quickly in cells by introducing mRNA encased in a nanoparticle. So when the next pandemic comes along — hopefully not for a long time — we should be able to go even more quickly."
I'll share a more of my conversation with Richard later this week, where we cover the startup landscape in science and medicine, the need for stronger scientific rigor in industry, and what's next for the human genome.